Monday, October 04, 2010

Who Stole Feminism? Part I

Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women is the title of a 1995 book by the anti-feminist writer Christina Hoff-Sommers. She is also famous for writing The War Against Boys. How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men.

That "Who Stole Feminism?" is also the title of a recent article in the Nation magazine by Jessica Valenti may be a pure coincidence. But if it is not, I wonder if the omitted part of Hoff-Sommer's book title should also be taken as given here. That would be the bit about how women have betrayed women.

Jessica's thesis is interesting: Women like Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell can call themselves feminists while advocating for a woman-hating culture because old progressive/liberal feminists have essentialized gender:

Sarah Palin opposes abortion and comprehensive sex education. While mayor of Wasilla she made sexual assault victims pay for their own rape kits. She also calls herself a feminist. Delaware GOP Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell has said that allowing women to attend military academies "cripples the readiness of our defense" and that wives should "graciously submit" to their husbands—but her website touts her "commitment to the women's movement." Pundits who once mocked women's rights activists as ugly bra burners are abuzz over the "new conservative feminism," and the Tea Party is lauding itself as a women's movement.

Feminists are understandably horrified—the movement we've fought so hard for is suddenly being appropriated by the very people who are trying to dismantle it. But this co-opting hasn't happened in a vacuum; the mainstream feminist movement's instability and stalled ideology have made stealing it that much easier. The failure of feminists to prop up the next generation of activists, and the focus on gender as the sole requisite for feminism, has led to a crisis of our own making.
I'm not convinced that gender has been treated as the sole requisite for feminism. It hasn't even been treated as a requisite. Indeed, I have always regarded men as completely capable of feminism and welcome them eagerly into the group that is so maligned and hated in this country. The more the merrier, for us masochists.

On the other hand, Jessica doesn't mean me when she talks about feminists in that quote; she means older feminists of the second wave who are still in power in the United States. Well, in power of the feminist movement which doesn't make one very powerful. And probably not of the second wave as most of those women are fairly old now. Pretty much just middle-aged white women. The ones who are in power.

But in what sense is gender the sole requirement even for that group? I think Jessica's answer is here:

Conservative women have been trying to steal feminism for more than a decade—organizations like the Independent Women's Forum and Feminists for Life have long fought for antiwomen policies while identifying themselves as the "real" feminists. But their "prowoman" messaging didn't garner national attention until actual feminists paved the way for them in the 2008 presidential election. During the Democratic primary, feminist icons and leaders of mainstream women's organizations insisted that the only acceptable vote was for Hillary Clinton; female Barack Obama supporters were derided as traitors or chided for their naïveté. I even heard from women working in feminist organizations who kept mum on their vote for fear of losing their jobs. Perhaps most representative of the internal strife was a New York Times op-ed (and the fallout that followed) by Gloria Steinem in which the icon wrote, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life."


By pushing a vote for Clinton on the basis of her gender alone, establishment feminists not only rehashed internal grievances—they opened the door for conservatives to demand support for Palin for the very same reason. Unwittingly, the feminist argument for Clinton gave credence to the GOP's hope that the mere presence of a female on the ticket would deliver women's votes.
Ah. I think this is about the horrible pains inflicted on so many of us during those Democratic Primaries. I still walk around with my intestines falling out of my belly wound, and, so it seems, does Jessica. And many, many other feminists.

That Clinton vs. Obama battle left most of us liberals/progressives wounded and damaged, revealed several others as misogynists or racists and demonstrated the great fragility of liberal/progressive support for feminism. Well, at least for the kind of feminism which essentializes gender or counts the number of female presidents the U.S. has had. Which is zero.

But I agree with Jessica that the Steinem quote was ill-advised. Now, gender is certainly the most restricting force in Saudi Arabian life, say. It may even be the most restricting force when viewed globally and when those forces are examined over long periods of time. But I'm not so sure that it's the most restricting force in the United States, overall. At the same time, it IS a restricting force for girls born into fundamentalist families of all types, for example.

Did establishment feminists push a vote for Clinton on the basis of her gender alone? I read widely during those primaries, and I recall that most people were debating policies, experience and platforms. Those feminists who supported Clinton argued that her platform and history showed her a supporter of women's rights. I'd be more willing to entertain Jessica's argument if Obama had ran against someone like Palin and if establishment feminists would still have backed the Palin-lookalike.

How does one define an "establishment feminist", by the way? Do people who write about feminism a lot count or not? Or does the person have to be running a feminist organization to count as one? How long must a person be famous as a feminist to count as part of the establishment? I'm asking because sometimes it is hard to know who these establishment feminists are, given that the whole feminist movement is in tatters and shreds.

This is the part of Jessica's argument I disagree with:

Unwittingly, the feminist argument for Clinton gave credence to the GOP's hope that the mere presence of a female on the ticket would deliver women's votes.
As I have already stated, I doubt that the sole qualifications of Hillary Clinton consisted of her gender, and the latter certainly worked against her among any misogynist voters. I also doubt that feminists had much impact on what John McCain chose to do about his running mate. It was his very own sexist assumption that any woman would do which made him pick Sarah Palin, because although she was fairly inexperienced compared to other possible Republican women, she was the darling of the fundamentalist right. Two flies with one swat.

The Republicans got the idea that lots of American women voters did want to see more women in positions of power and ran with it. Granted, they ran away from feminist thinking, as fast they could, but they still ran. I really don't think the feminist establishment was the cause of that.

More from Jessica:

If there was ever proof that the feminist movement needs to leave gender essentialism at the door—this is it. If powerful feminists continue to insist that gender matters above all else, the movement will become meaningless. If any woman can be a feminist simply because of her gender, then the right will continue to use this faux feminism to advance conservative values and roll back women's rights.
I must finally admit to my ignorance here. I'm not quite sure what Jessica means by the term "gender essentialism." It's unlikely to be quite the definition biological determinists would use and more likely to come from the anti-essentialism literature where concepts such as gender are seen as socially constructed and from the intersectionality literature. The latter also gives me one possible interpretation for Jessica's argument about gender mattering more than anything else:

Part of this first step is seeing that people have a tendency to identify with an
oppression, most likely the one they have experienced, and to consider all other
oppressions as being of less importance. In the person’s mind their oppression has a
tendency then to become a master status. This leads to a kind contradiction where the oppressed becomes the oppressor. For example, a black heterosexual woman may
discriminate against lesbians without a second thought; or, a black Southern Baptist
woman may believe that every school classroom ought to display the Ten
Commandments. “Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these
approaches fail to recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors” (Collins, 2000, p. 287).

Collins' quote appears to refer to individuals, not to movements, however.

Whatever the correct take of that term, Jessica seems to be arguing that feminists should not prioritize gender over issues of race, class or sexual preference. If they do so they are gender essentialists.

But then other social justice movements might be accused of similar essentialism? Those who work on class issues should not prioritize class over gender and race and sexual preference, and those who work on anti-racism should not prioritize race over gender and class and sexual preference and those who work on GLBT issues should not prioritize GLBT issues over race, gender and class. They would all end up being almost the same movement if you continue with that exercise.

I'd be happy with that outcome. I wouldn't be happy with the outcome of feminists fighting for every cause and the other movements practicing essentialism that favors their own causes, because the effect of that would be to have practically nobody working on those purely gender-related problems such as misogyny, anti-choice groups, fundamentalist beliefs about women's inferiority and Evo-Psycho theories about women's inferiority, to mention a few.

Or to put it succinctly: Misogynists don't practice intersectionality, except to point out that foreign women are more likely to be submissive and hence the need for mail order brides in the U.S.

This does not mean that I would be opposed to intersectionality in feminist thought and debate, quite the opposite. True intersectionality is also very important for feminist activism (more about both of these in Part II of Who Stole Feminism). What it does mean is that I see an important role for some part of feminist research and debate to focus on gender and even to prioritize it.